What started as an unofficial men’s knitting group at Phoenix blossomed into an initiative that’s seen an explosion of residents getting involved in making toques for the homeless during the pandemic.
The initiative began in late 2020 when Nelson Mendonca began knitting after arriving at Phoenix’s main campus following a stay at Surrey Pretrial – where he had learned to loom.
“Just getting fresh out of jail, I was nervous here. I went and got some knitting stuff and just started making a toque. I went down to a meeting and I was knitting. It spread like wildfire after that. Everyone was asking what I was doing, so I showed one guy on the floor how to do it, then another guy. Before I knew it, it was almost right of passage: To be on my floor you had to learn how to knit,” said Nelson.
“So you’d walk into our group and see 10 guys knitting,” he chuckled. “Or a bunch of guys are watching Scarface and they’re knitting.”
The story went viral in 2020. After local media picked up the story, the men received international attention when CNN published an article about them.
By the end of March 2021, over 1,000 toques had been knitted. Some were given away, others were hand-delivered to non-profits like Surrey Urban Mission Society, destined for those experiencing homelessness.
The club helped many Phoenix residents during the hard days of the pandemic – which were particularly isolating for those in recovery.
Nelson and all the “toquers” say it feels good to give back.
“The best part about making the toques is just to start something and finish it and be able to give it away,” said Nelson. “In our past, a lot of us couldn’t say we’ve ever done that. It means a lot to start and finish something, and be able to give it away.
“It’s like a stepping stone to accomplishing things bigger than making toques.”
For Nelson, it was. He is working and has entered Vancouver Career College to obtain his Social Work Diploma. He is passionate about tackling the voids and gaps in the correctional system to help inmates be successful in reintegration.
Sean Brossard has also been heavily involved in the club, and is now in Phoenix’s Transitional Housing Program after completing treatment in early 2021.
Sean described the looming as “cathartic.” He said knitting is a “good way to get out of your head and into something else.”
“You’re kind of in a zen, spiritual mode. You’re in total control and you’re right there in the moment,” he added.
“When you’re with someone and you’re toquing, it can be easier to open up and deal with your emotions or shame. Friendships were definitely born in the toquing.”
In many ways, the knitting is a metaphor for what happens at Phoenix: Starting something new, changing things, one stitch at a time.